Hal Roth - May 2007

Old News from Delmarva:
A Fatal Attraction (Part 1)
Hal Roth

     On May 20, 1879, the following note appeared in Delmarva newspapers: “The Worcester County Maryland Grand Jury has indicted Miss Lillie Duer for murder in the first degree for shooting her companion, Miss Ella Hearn, at Pocomoke City. The date for the trial has not yet been set.”
      Soon, journals up and down the East Coast and into the Midwest would carry the details of a story far more shocking to nineteenth century readers than it would be today.

     Worcester County, Maryland, has to deal with a most extraordinary murder case. There was a killing for love and jealousy, the slayer and lover being a young woman of about 20 years, and the slain a beautiful girl of 17 springs.
      Miss Lillie Duer and Miss Ella Hearn were both of good thrifty families of Newtown, Md. [Pocomoke City was once named Newtown], and had long been friends. Miss Duer is a girl of very striking appearance and peculiarities. She looks more like a boy than a girl in the face, wears short hair parted on the side, a boy’s hat and a dress jacket with a pistol pocket in it, and a pistol in the pocket. She will raise her hat to her lady acquaintances in saluting them, and her general makeup, gait and demeanor are more like a man’s than a woman’s. She cares nothing for the society of gentlemen and has an almost idolatrous admiration for the beautiful of her own sex.
      Ella Hearn was exceedingly beautiful, and Miss Duer formed a very ardent attachment for her. The two were always together; in fact, Miss Hearn, doing her best, could not keep out of Miss Duer’s way. The fervor of her female lover began to annoy Miss Hearn, but she seems to have been unable to help herself. She finally became terrified whenever she was alone in Lillie Duer’s company, and this terror had good grounds. Once when the two were rambling in the woods together, Miss Duer proposed to Miss Hearn that they should marry each other. She didn’t see why two women who love each other shouldn’t get married and live together all their lives. Miss Hearn became so frightened at the passionate proposal that she broke away from her friend and started off rapidly towards home. Miss Duer cried, “Wait,” but the other only quickened her pace. A second order to halt was given, and then Miss Duer, without warning, drew her pistol and fired two shots in quick succession at her retreating friend. Miss Hearn was rooted with terror in her tracks, and Miss Duer, when she came up, explained that if she [Hearn] hadn’t stopped, the third shot would have been effective. They walked home together without any further violent love demonstrations.
      Miss Duer continued to visit Miss Hearn at her home, and when the former mentioned the subject of her passionate love and marriage inclinations again, the latter ran in terror to her room and locked herself in until her lover was gone. After this there was a coolness between the two girls, but they finally made up and were friends again.
      A young man of the village paid some attention to Miss Hearn, and this very much disturbed the peace of Miss Duer. She became madly jealous of her male rival and angry with Miss Hearn.
      Miss Duer came one day and found Miss Hearn sitting at needlework with her mother. It was a day last November. She wanted Miss Hearn to take a walk with her, and the latter declined. When Miss Duer started to go, Miss Hearn accompanied her to the door and outside. In a few minutes the mother was startled by a shot. Going out, she found her daughter prostrate and bleeding from the mouth, and Miss Duer, pistol in hand, stood weeping and wildly crying: “I have shot her. Oh, my God, she will die!”
      Miss Hearn lived a month, mostly in delirium, and her grave is now an object of interest in the village churchyard. Her photograph is the only record of her singular beauty.
      Miss Duer was arrested and gave bond for her appearance in the sum of $2,500. Thus at liberty, she often visited her friend in the death chamber in the presence of others. Once, during one of Miss Hearn’s lucid intervals, the two girls had some conversation, which Miss Duer describes thus: “She heard my voice and called me. She received me by putting her arms around my neck. She then said: ‘Lil, what’s the matter with me?’ I told her that she was hurt.
     “‘Who hurt me?’
     “‘I, Ella. It was I who did it.’
     “‘Then you did not do it purposely, did you?’
      Miss Duer explains the shooting as follows: “I called to see Ella for the purpose of taking a walk. She did not wish to go. I begged her. She refused. I then wanted to kiss her. I had the pistol in my hand after giving up the attempt to kiss her and was looking at the cartridges––counting them––when the pistol went off.”
      In Miss Hearn’s delirium she often cried out with her hands before her face: “Lillie, don’t shoot. Please don’t shoot me. I will go with you and always live with you.”
      A lady witness before the grand jury gave the following statement, which, however, will not be used against the accused at the trial.
     “During a long, lucid interval, Miss Hearn talked to me about the shooting and related how it all came about, and this is the substance of it:
     “‘As soon as the door of the sitting room had been closed, Miss Duer turned about and looked at me intensely for a moment and said: ‘Ella, why will you not walk out with me? Do you not love me?’
     “‘Oh, yes, I love you,’ I said, ‘but I am afraid of you.’
     “‘Do you love him?’ she asked.
     “‘To this question I gave no answer, when she became more excited and spoke again quickly: ‘Do you love Miss Foster better than you do me?’
     “‘My answer was yes, and this appeared to excite her. She rushed wildly about in a terrible state of excitement.’
     “‘Don’t say that, Ella. Don’t say that,’ she kept repeating, while I stood rooted to the spot by the vehemence of her manner.
     “‘Presently she came close to me and said, ‘If you say that again, I will shoot you,’ and she took out her pistol and cocked it. Then she appeared to become more calm and seemed to want to make up with me and attempted to kiss me, but I repulsed her. This caused her to slip and fall upon her knees. I then saw she was furious, and she gave me a fearful look that I shall never forget and pointed the pistol right at my head. I held up my arm to ward it off, and I cried out, ‘Oh, don’t shoot me. Please, Lillie, don’t shoot me. I will go with you; I will love you.’ But it was too late, for the next second I was aware the pistol had been fired.’”
      The Grand Jury of Worcester County found a bill of indictment against Lillie Duer for murder in the first degree, and the trial will take place immediately. The line of defense will be that the pistol was fired accidentally and without motive, and that the weapon was a habitual possession of the accused.

     One paper called it “The most remarkable crime on record––the woman who wanted to marry one of her own sex.”
      While awaiting trial, Lillie Duer was confined to a guest room in Snow Hill’s National Hotel, where her days were spent cheerfully in the reading of poetry and other books of a romantic nature. With certain restrictions, relatives and intimate friends were permitted to visit, and her sister was her almost constant companion.
      As the trial date of June 13 neared, Snow Hill’s quiet streets filled with strangers, and the case became almost the sole topic of conversation. Correspondents from around the nation crowded the small telegraph office. The following dispatch was sent to the Ohio Democrat.

     June 12, 1879––The sad tragedy of last November, in which Miss Hearn, a beautiful young girl just blooming into womanhood, lost her life by the hand of Miss Lillie Duer, is again the paramount matter of interest in this quaint little Eastern Shore town. Miss Ella Hearn, the victim, rests peacefully in the old Episcopal churchyard. She was originally from Laurel, Del., where she spent most of her youthful days and where her pretty face and sweet ways are remembered by a large number of friends and acquaintances. That she was the fairest and most lovely girl in all the county about is the testimony of all who knew her.
      At the time of her death she was scarcely seventeen. She was a girl of high spirits and was gay, cheerful and dashing in her disposition. She was highly esteemed among her friends and those who knew her as a young girl of sweet and pure disposition. Although her education was limited to the acquirements possible at the high school at Newtown, she was fairly accomplished, without any brilliant attainments or pretensions.
      For some years she had permitted rather than encouraged a growing intimacy with Miss Lillie Duer, whose affection and passion at last resulted in her death. The families of the two girls, while very respectable, do not belong to the aristocratic society here. Miss Lillie Duer is about twenty-one years of age and has lived all her life in Newark [Maryland]. She is by no means pretty and somewhat awkward in her movements, as though her female habiliments trammeled her, and she would be better able to get about in male attire. Her eyes are large and unflinching; she meets your gaze with a steady, firm, somewhat defiant stare. The face is rather thin and clearly cut, and her forehead is strikingly high and broad. Her thin lips close tightly, which causes the firmness of her expression to strike the observer at once. With short and very dark hair parted at the side, she wears a roll at the top of her head. The face is one that would excite interest anywhere. She talks quite intelligently and with ease, appears to have entire confidence in herself and acts as though she would much prefer to be a man rather than a woman. Her intimacy with Miss Hearn began some years ago, and during last spring and summer the two girls were constantly together, much like sisters. Miss Duer appears to have obtained a mastery over her more womanly but weaker minded companion, and it was an affection more mixed with fear than love that controlled Miss Hearn’s actions.
      It seems strange that she could love such an unsexed being as Miss Duer appears to be. From what is told of her, Miss Duer would smoke with the sang froid of a Frenchman and was also fond of tobacco in its other forms. The most striking articles of her usual costume were her dresses, always worn short; a little jacket with inside pockets like a boy’s, filled with tobacco or licorice; and a boy’s hat, which she always tipped when acknowledging a salute.
      The young girls with whom she associated tell numerous stories of her curious idiosyncrasies. She never cared for the society of the sterner sex and would make hot love like Romeo to her female friends. Sometimes they would laugh these fancies away; at others she would frighten them with her vehemence and they would run away from her.
      She was always a mystery, and a young lady who knew her well says that it was a favorite theory of hers that two women could be quite as happy and get along quite as well married as a woman and a man.
      In outdoor sports she excelled all her lady friends and could jump about and play baseball as well as any young man in the town. She always carried a pistol and was an expert shot. It is said that all of her dresses were made with a pocket for her pistol, and it is certain that she always carried one and was fond of using it.
      But with all these peculiarities she was looked upon in Pocomoke as a bright and intelligent woman, with queer notions, to be sure, but which time would most likely correct.
      I watched Miss Duer closely as she sat talking quietly but with animation in her father’s parlor yesterday for some indication of the strange characteristics she is said to possess, but in the somewhat melancholy cast of her countenance and the calmness with which her eyes met mine, there was nothing to suggest anything peculiar about her.
      I had some difficulty in obtaining an interview with Miss Duer. She was self-possessed and did not appear to be in any great distress either about the shooting or the approaching trial. Occasionally, when speaking of other matters, she would smile, and once during my visit laughed quite merrily. She sat opposite me upon the other side of a long table, and while conversing would look directly in my eyes, scarcely ever dropping hers while the talk continued. Both her mother and father were present. The latter is a quiet, easy going sort of a man and said little, but the mother, who was remarkably like her daughter in appearance, watched the conversation closely and would occasionally check Miss Lillie in a half-formed sentence by a quick look and a gesture of the hand. Miss Duer said that she had been badly treated by the press and had always been misrepresented. The trial would, she said, show that newspapermen are apt to say more than they had a right to, and more, very frequently, than they heard. She declares that the shooting was purely accidental.
      Miss Duer denies the rumor that she had left Pocomoke City for Baltimore in male attire.
      There are two lines of defense proposed––accidental shooting and insanity. Miss Duer, it is understood, objects to the latter and says that she would rather go to prison than be proved insane. She is very sensitive on this point, and it is quite likely that the plea of insanity will not be entered.

Next month: the trial, verdict and aftermath of the case.

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.